‘Into the hede, throw the helme and creste’: Head Wounds and a Question of Kingship in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur

in Wounds and Wound Repair in Medieval Culture, ed. Larissa Tracy and Kelly DeVries (Leiden: Brill, 2015): 496–518.
Finalist for the International Arthurian Society (North American Branch) James Randall Leader Essay Prize (2015).

Terrible wounds are not uncommon in the corpus of Arthurian literature. Knights are frequently run-through, hacked to pieces, and bashed about the head and shoulders, often with little or no consequence, but some wounds have grave consequences for knights and the realm they defend. Beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britannie (c. 1138), head wounds emphasize the strength and prowess of the warrior who delivers the blow and the gravity of the wound for the knight who receives it.[1] Joseph Sullivan argues that head trauma is one of the most “prevalent loci of physical violence” in medieval literature and that in Arthurian romance specifically, it advances the plot, “heightens the emotional atmosphere and helps establish the identity” of the characters.[2] Throughout the corpus, Gawain is almost always killed by a series of head wounds, but Lancelot and Arthur usually do not suffer such a wound. They are most often wounded in the side, evoking a comparison with the final spear wound of Christ during the crucifixion. However, the poet of the Stanzaic Morte Arthur (c.1400) frequently inflicts head wounds with varying degrees of severity on his knights as they duel, battle or joust, deviating from his French source and English analogues. In the Stanzaic Morte (Stanzaic), several of the wounds are head wounds delivered through the helmet into the skull. However, few are fatal (or even debilitating) until the very end, when they simply seem to catalogue carnage. Despite the profusion of non-lethal head wounds in the Stanzaic, the three consequential head wounds—those of Lancelot (who recovers after a long convalescence that drives the entire plot), Gawain (who dies because of repeated blows to the same spot on his head), and Arthur (whose fatal head wound is delivered by Mordred)—foreshadow the destruction of Arthur’s realm. The way these three wounds mark the increasing destabilization and debilitation of Arthur’s kingship has both historical as well as literary contexts. Written at the end of the fourteenth century, the Stanzaic condemns the rash violence among those sworn to be loyal to one another by locating that violence at the seat of superbia (Pride),[3] the core of reason, and the symbol of political rule—the head. By striking at the head—the king and his most trusted knights—the poet criticizes the kingship of Richard II (1377–1399) weakened by the rebellion of barons, warning against tyranny in a poignant reflection of late fourteenth-century political turmoil that ultimately ended in usurpation.

The Stanzaic,[4] a condensed version of the French prose La Mort Artu (Mort), the final work in the thirteenth-century Lancelot-Grail Cycle,[5] recounts the fall of the Round Table, the dissolution of Arthur’s fellowship, and all the events leading up to those cataclysmic events in a “lean and rapid narrative” that “gains force” because of its more obvious focus upon the actions of Arthur’s knights rather than their psychological abstractions.[6] It is often juxtaposed with the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure (Alliterative), though the alliterative text more closely follows the Arthurian chronicle tradition based on Geoffrey of Monmouth, rather than the later romances. Both poems are usually dated around 1400, though there is no certainty in either case. Nevertheless, the questions of kingship in the Stanzaic reflect concerns of the second half of the fourteenth century, and the poem may well have been written in the later years of Richard II’s reign. The Stanzaic only survives in London, British Library, Harley MS 2252 (fols. 86a–133b), which is listed in the British Library catalogue as an alchemical text and is known to scholars as John Colyns’ “Boke” or the “Commonplace Book of John Colyns” after its owner and compiler.[7] The manuscript is an interesting collection of political and medical texts centered around the Stanzaic and another romance, Ipomydon B. The two romances are older than the rest of the early sixteenth-century manuscript, having been copied sometime in the late fifteenth century.[8] Carole Weinberg explains that the poem subtly critiques Lancelot and Arthurian chivalry, celebrating the chivalric ideals of love and loyalty while simultaneously presenting them as divisive and destructive forces.[9] The Stanzaic is often neglected and dismissed by critics as simple and populist,[10] but the sophisticated stanzaic form where groups of stanzas are paralleled or contrasted with others later in the poem creates an intertextuality that gives the poem greater depth.[11] The Stanzaic-poet places his narrative “within a recognizable chivalric world, while manipulating the conventional diction in such a way as to scrutinize the chivalric ideals it normally conveys.”[12] The poem captures the essence of English identity in its adaptation of French romance.

[1] See: Siân Echard, “‘But here Geoffrey falls silent’: Death, Arthur and the Historia regum Britannie,” in The Arthurian Way of Death: The English Tradition, ed. Karen Cherewatuk and K.S. Whetter, Arthurian Studies 74 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009), 17–32.

[2] Joseph Sullivan, “Smashing Pumpkins: Violence to the Head in Selected Middle High German, Old French, Scandinavian, Middle Dutch and Middle English Arthurian Romances” (paper delivered at the 23rd Congress of the International Arthurian Society, University of Bristol, 25-30 July 2011). I am grateful to Dr. Sullivan for sending me his talk, and I am deeply indebted to Jeff Massey and Kevin Whetter for their comments on early drafts of this essay.

[3] Sullivan, “Smashing Pumpkins,” 3. See also: Joannes Norman, Metamorphoses of an Allegory: The Iconography of the Psychomachia in Medieval Art (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988).

[4] All textual citations of the Stanzaic are from Le Morte D’Arthur: A Critical Edition, ed. P.F. Hissiger (Paris: Mouton, 1975). Line numbers are given in parentheses. Citations of the Alliterative are from Morte Arthure, ed. Edmund Brock, EETS os 8 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1871, rptd. 1961).

[5] La Mort le Roi Artu: Roman du XIIIe siècle, ed. Jean Frappier (Paris: Droz, 1936, rptd. 1996). Paragraph and line numbers are given in parenthesis. A full English translation is available in From Camelot to Joyous Guard: The Old French La Mort Roi Artu, trans. J. Neale Carman, ed. Norris J. Lacy (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1974).

[6] Larry D. Benson, ed., introduction to King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, rev. Edward E. Foster, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University Press, 1994), 1–7, at 2.

[7] See: Carol M. Meale, “London, British Library, Harley MS 2252, John Colyns’ ‘Boke’: Structure and Content,” in Tudor Manuscripts 1485–1603, ed. A.S.G. Edwards (London: The British Library, 2009), 65–122; and http://www.bl.uk/search/reshelp/search?q=Harley+2252&Go.x=0&Go.y=0&filter=0&output=xml_no_dtd&proxystylesheet=public_reshelp&client=public_reshelp&site=public_reshelp (accessed 9 Jan. 2013).

[8] See: Carole Weinberg, “The Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” in The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval English Life and Literature, ed. W.R.J. Barron (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001 rptd. 2011), 100–11.

[9] Weinberg, “The Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” 100.

[10] Benson, Introduction, 4.

[11] Weinberg, “The Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” 101.

[12] Weinberg, “The Stanzaic Morte Arthur,” 101.